‘News without feeling exhausted’: ‘It’s Been a Minute’ looks to lighten up public radio weekends

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Tyler Falk/Current

"It's Been a Minute" host Sam Sanders talks with a guest after a taping of the show.

CULVER CITY, Calif. —Sam Sanders can’t sit still.

During a Thursday afternoon meeting in February with producers at NPR West, it’s not long before the host of NPR’s It’s Been a Minute is squatting shoeless on a chair, then balancing on the chair’s back legs.

Wearing a denim button-down, black jeans and orange-striped socks, he’s toying with topics to discuss for the next day’s taping of the show’s week-in-review segment. He suggests a U.S. Supreme Court decision about civil asset forfeiture.

“I mean, it’s hard to hear the word ‘civil forfeiture,’” says senior editor Jordana Hochman, joining on video from Washington, D.C.

“Civil asset forfeiture,” Sanders says jokingly. “Respect it.” The small team breaks into laughter.

Hochman gets the meeting back on track — they have the conference room for only half an hour — by asking Sanders what “big idea” he wants to convey when discussing the story.

“There have been a few small surprises from this court that kind of buck this idea and this liberal talking point that Donald Trump has permanently yanked the court to the right,” he says. “Maybe that’s the big thing?” They go with it. The discussion jumps to the Jussie Smollett case, then to a producer ribbing Sanders about whether he can rap along with an Eminem song.

Like It’s Been a Minute, the meeting is a balance of serious discussions with playful banter. The hourlong weekend show isn’t the typical public radio program. “We open with fun, we go to hard news, we go back,” Sanders tells Current later. “We zigzag.”

Sanders and producer Anjuli Sastry discuss story ideas during an “It’s Been a Minute” meeting. (Photo: Tyler Falk)

It’s one way the show’s creators are attempting to change what a public radio program should be. Sanders and his team are aiming to create a new sound by featuring a more diverse range of guests and delivering serious news with a casual, lighthearted tone that sets It’s Been a Minute apart from other NPR fare.

Since its debut in 2017 as a podcast pilot on NPR One, the show is gaining carriage. As of February, 249 stations aired It’s Been a Minute, up from 94 in fall 2017 and 185 in spring 2018.

It began appearing on stations in October 2017 as NPR promoted replacements for Car Talk, which the network was phasing out. It’s Been a Minute was among the most popular choices to fill slots on station schedules previously occupied by the Magliozzis.

It’s Been a Minute “sounds like conversations we have in the hallways with each other and friends out in the community,” said Roxanna Caldwell, director of programming at WFYI-FM in Indianapolis, which carries the show. “It’s kind of a breath of fresh air.”

‘Being a human on the radio’

The idea to start It’s Been a Minute came as Sanders had pizza and beer with friends in Washington, D.C., in the midst of the 2016 election. He was co-hosting NPR Politics Podcast and reporting. He felt “tired and angry,” he remembers. “The election was just killing me.”

Politics Podcast producer Brent Baughman suggested starting a show. “And I was like, ‘Whatever, I don’t fucking care,’” Sanders said. Though he thought little of it at the time, they piloted It’s Been a Minute a few months later.

Baughman, now a senior producer on It’s Been a Minute, had a talk show in mind when he raised the idea but otherwise didn’t know what the program would sound like. He had been thinking about a commentary Ira Glass had written for Current in which the creator of This American Life called on stations to stop airing Car Talk reruns and seize an opportunity to reinvent public radio’s weekends.

“I had always thought about that … and talking with Sam about what he was going to do next, it seemed clear that he could handle a show,” Baughman said. “And weekend programming felt like a cool idea.”

It was also clear from Politics Podcast listeners’ feedback that Sanders connected with them because of “how much of himself he brought to those conversations,” Baughman said.

NPR still gets emails from listeners who remember a 2016 Politics Podcast episode on which Sanders broke down while discussing the Orlando nightclub shooting, Baughman said. “He did that as a reporter,” Baughman said, “and it’s just not something that our listeners get to hear a lot of NPR reporters do.”

“I knew exactly what they responded to in him and why he resonated so much with them,” he said. “It’s his heart. It’s his emotion, it’s his humor, and being a human on the radio.”

Sanders and Baughman (Photo: Alexandria Lee/NPR)

This was reflected as well in the high audience engagement earned by pilot Politics Podcast segments on NPR One in which Sanders interviewed NPR colleagues. That was “a nice, persuasive thing to have” when making a case for launching Politics Podcast and It’s Been a Minute, Baughman said.

Baughman said that when he pitched It’s Been a Minute to Anya Grundmann, NPR’s SVP for programming and audience development, and Steve Nelson, senior director of programming, he went in thinking, “Sam’s going to do a show somewhere, so let’s not lose the opportunity to have it be an NPR show.”

Sanders says a show like his couldn’t have existed a decade ago — “No way in hell.” The network was different when Sanders joined in 2009 as a Kroc Fellow, a yearlong fellowship for young journalists at the network and a member station.

At the time, new projects “had to be focus-grouped to death by like 12 middle managers,” Sanders said. But now management “allows things to grow organically” and “trusts the talent to just lead,” Sanders said.

He attributes those changes to growing competition. “We aren’t the only kids on the playground anymore,” he said.

‘Exactly what we wanted to make’

Baughman also wanted Sanders to do longform interviews because many prominent hosts of podcast and public radio interview shows are white. Sanders is black and gay — he discussed coming out in a fall 2018 episode.

“When you look at the roster of people of color Sam has talked to in the last two years, it’s so clear that a lot of amazing conversations and perspectives were being left off the table,” Baughman said. “And Sam can engage with those voices in a personal way that is truly unique.”

Nelson (Photo: Caroline Yang)

NPR’s Nelson said his big test for hosts is “‘Do listeners want to hang out with this person? Get a cup of coffee with them? Get a beer with them?’ I think Sam has that.”

But Sanders said that he was reluctant to let his personality come through on the air when he started at NPR “because you’re trained in the NPR way” — the idea that “NPR voices should be entirely free of personality, identity and, well, fun. But Brent was like, ‘Especially on the weekend, listeners want to hear a person.’”

Baughman was also adamant that It’s Been a Minute be tailored to Sanders’ interests. “Who Said That,” a recurring segment in which panelists are asked to identify the source of a newsmaking quote from the past week, grew out of Sanders wanting to use a clip of The Real Housewives of Atlanta in the show, Sanders said.

During the news roundups, Sanders and his panelists describe the week in three words. The approach came from a trick Sanders used while covering Bernie Sanders’ campaign: When he had trouble getting good tape, he would ask people to describe a campaign event in three words.

They would start with three words, “and then they would like say everything else,” he said. “… It always worked.”

Sanders and Baughman wanted It’s Been a Minute to have a more commercial sound. “We didn’t want it to feel like stuffy public radio,” Baughman said. “And we tried things early on that could probably be described as way more on the morning-zoo end of things.” In one segment, producers gave Sanders 15 seconds to complain about a topic before cutting his mic.

They’ve since moved away from what Baughman calls those “goofier” segments. “The news is so heavy all the time right now, and we didn’t want to come off as glib,” Baughman said. “Sam never wanted to be just like the kid snickering in the back of the class. He wants to use humor to connect with people and lighten their day up.”

Most episodes of It’s Been a Minute open with Sanders reviewing the week’s news with reporters from NPR and other outlets. He also interviews an author, newsmaker or celebrity at length, a segment also fed as a podcast Tuesdays.

And each show ends with recordings sent by listeners about the best thing that happened to them during the week — something Sanders used to ask Facebook friends before he started the show. The show receives dozens of submissions each week.

It’s Been a Minute is “exactly what we wanted to make,” Sanders said. “No one diluted it, and no one screwed with it.”

Grundmann (Photo: Stephen Voss/NPR)

NPR programming executives were interested in launching It’s Been a Minute because it offered a way to better connect the network’s weekend programming “to what’s going on in the world,” said Grundmann. A lot of public radio’s weekend programming is evergreen, she said, and NPR is “thinking a lot about how to make listening feel connected to the world we’re walking through all through the week.”

“On the weekend, we want to be relevant to the world and also bring joy and surprise as well,” Grundmann said. “What we hear from listeners is that when they hear Sam’s show, it helps them process the week’s news without feeling exhausted.”

NPR aims to draw a younger and more diverse audience to It’s Been a Minute. Sanders, 34, says that people in their 20s tell him he sounds like them, while listeners in their 60s and 70s say they tune in to keep up with what younger generations are talking about.

“I used to think, ‘Oh, we’re making a podcast for millennials,’” Sanders said. “No, we’re not. We’re making a podcast and radio show for everybody.”

‘Eff with the paradigm’

The day after It’s Been a Minute’s story meeting, Sanders has polished off a breakfast burrito by 7:30 a.m. He’s in a studio, seated in his chair this time and having a lively conversation with two guests for the show’s weekly news roundup. It would be easy to think you’re overhearing a conversation over brunch, just with an array of microphones around the table.

Sanders talks about a recent tweet in which he shared a weird eating habit from his childhood.

He tries to convince his guests to share similar stories from their childhood.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to say them publicly,” says HuffPost news editor Saba Hamedy. But she relents and discloses that she once ate roly-polies. Zach Stafford, editor in chief at The Advocate, reveals that he used to store food in his mouth like a chipmunk.

The conversation gets producer Anjuli Sastry laughing in the control room as she checks how many times the Senate has unsuccessfully tried to pass anti-lynching legislation and Slacks with Sanders about the taping. Sastry says she “laughs all the time” on the job.

Sastry (Photo: Tyler Falk)

The day before, Sanders told NPR board members convening at NPR West that It’s Been a Minute tries to differentiate itself by approaching the news “from a place of optimism,” no matter what events are in the headlines.

He said he decided early on in developing the show that “we were going to try our best to be happy. We were going to try our best to laugh at ourselves. We weren’t going to ignore the news or ignore the world. We were going to understand that there’s always good in the world regardless of what topic A-1 is.”

“We kind of trick our listeners into thinking it’s like a little fun talk party but, like, no, we’re giving you a lot of news stories,” Sanders later told Current. Though the show has light moments, “it’s still journalism,” he said. “We’re still storyboarding, we’re still researching, we’re still fact-checking.”

One episode included panelists discussing a news report about Chuck E. Cheese using recycled pizza. “Our editor rigorously was like, ‘You must quote Chuck E. Cheese and their response to this story,’” Sanders said. “We still have to be journalists, no matter how fun the thing may seem.”

The most downloaded episode of It’s Been a Minute’s podcast focused on a weighty topic: the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Sanders talked only to white people for the episode “because it often feels like this pressure on marginalized groups … to really lead these conversations after weekends like this one,” he said on the podcast. “So I wanted to flip the script.”

As Sanders told the NPR board, he tries to “eff with the paradigm every week and every segment.”

The It’s Been a Minute team, which consists of five full-time staffers, also strives for diversity among guests. That includes racial, political and geographic diversity, and producers keep track. The show’s news roundups are never male-only. Its guest hosts have all been women.

“We’ve been really intentional about … making diversity not something that’s touchy-feely fuzzy but something that’s actually just, like, numbers and math and rules,” Sanders told Current. “Did you count it? Do you have a rule for it? Are you doing it?”

White women make up the largest segment of the podcast’s audience, according to Sanders, “but they tell us all the time, ‘Keep it up. We want to hear experiences that are not our own.’”

A ‘nice bridge’

Programmers at stations carrying It’s Been a Minute say the show has been a valuable addition to their lineups.

WFYI in Indianapolis began airing It’s Been a Minute upon its radio debut. Audience in the show’s 2 p.m. time slot, previously occupied by The Moth Radio Hour, has grown the most among listeners 45 and older, according to WFYI’s Caldwell.

It’s Been a Minute is like “a relaxed Meet the Press,” Caldwell said. “It’s a very well-rounded program that we think anybody listening can relate to, no matter what age group they fall into.”

She said she especially likes hearing NPR reporters on the program because they’re “able to be a little more real and open with their conversations.”

“It’s more of a conversation instead of a presentation, and that’s what makes it different,” she said.

On Nevada Public Radio, It’s Been a Minute provides a “nice bridge” between news-focused shows like Weekend Edition and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and general-interest shows like Snap Judgment and TED Radio Hour, according to Dave Becker, director of programming.

“It’s the kind of thing that I suspect a lot of us in the public radio system are looking for, which is … you’ve got one ear cocked to the news of the week and news of the weekend, but the other ears that are cocked to the cultural stuff that’s of interest to your regular news listeners,” he said.

The show’s ending segment, with listeners discussing highlights of their week, is “a nice quirky little touch,” Becker said. “There’s a human touch to that because all of us have something good that happened to us this week.”

Becker said he also appreciates the diversity of guests.

“The fact that Sam’s able to do it in kind of a matter-of-fact, offhand way — nobody has to make a big deal out of the fact that someone is a person of color, or [who] someone is in terms of sexual orientation or anything like that — it’s matter-of-fact, and that’s grand,” he said. “That’s what you want.”

Sanders said he wants every NPR station to air It’s Been a Minute. But he’ll be content even if he doesn’t achieve that lofty goal.

“When I started at NPR, all I wanted was to be a reporter by the time I was 30,” he said. “And then that happened, and I was like, ‘All right, whatever happens next, cool.’ So I’m just along for the ride now.”

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